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Joi Sears headshot

Nat Geo Fair Trade Marketplace Uses Happiness to Rake in $63 Million

Words by Joi Sears

National Geographic’s fair trade marketplace, Novica, has raked in over $63 million for artisans around the world. Guided by one simple mantra, “spread happiness," the company is proving that happiness works.

Novica’s mission is to promote global happiness through happy artisans and happy customers. For the artisans, this means fair prices, no binding contracts, and the freedom to turn their craft into a sustainable business. For the customers, this means having access to unique, quality, handmade products, and the joy of helping to nurture the craft of global artisans.

“More than fair trade, more than microcredit, more than anything else I can think of – if that artisan’s family is happy, we’ve succeeded,” explained co-founder Roberto Milk in the company’s Happiness Manifesto. “At the very core of what we do – at our very essence, we’ve succeeded only if we make both artisans and customers happy.” This happiness is achieved through three guiding principles: connect, empower and preserve.


Artisans from around the world, especially those living in rural communities, do not have the means to sell their products on the international market. Novica connects artisans to a global marketplace of socially-conscious customers, by providing a free platform to market and sell their products.

Novica connects artisans with the regional support they need by positioning a team of local art experts in different countries around the world. From product development advice to quality control assistance, local staff is available to make the item listing process as simple and efficient as possible.

Novica also connects the artisans with consumers by providing detailed artisan profiles to inform consumers about who made the products they’re purchasing. The company makes an effort to capture the real story of the artisan by placing a portrait and detailed biography on every product page.


In a world where there are so many mass-produced products -- with no record of who made them and under what conditions -- Novica empowers consumers by providing them with the information they need to make more conscious choices. It gives consumers the choice to say no to sweatshops and child labor, while encouraging them to use their wallets to vote for a happier world.

Novica empowers artisans to build a sustainable business from their crafts. The company uses a completely transparent system where artisans have control over their work. They are free to raise or lower their own prices, and can withdraw their products at any time.

In partnership with Kiva, Novica offers 0 percent interest loans to artisans who want to expand their business and bring more income to their wider communities. This business model cuts out the financial middlemen by allowing lenders to provide micro financing to the artisan of their choice, directly through the website. Once the loan is repaid, lenders can either recycle the loan by supporting another artisan, withdraw the funds or convert them to store credits.


Novica promotes cultural sustainability by preserving ancient artistic traditions for future generations to enjoy. Throughout history, artists and artisans have been forced to give up their art in favor of a more lucrative careers, leading to lost traditions and cultural practices. The Novica marketplace allows artisans to carry on with their craft, so that they can operate sustainable creative businesses.

Local sourcing teams in every region are tasked with finding the most unique and precious art traditions around. They look for originality, quality of workmanship, and pieces they know that customers will love. Through the platform’s Keepers Of The Arts page, Novica promotes awareness for endangered traditions, and provides a place where customers can target their support.

The story

The idea for Novica came to co-founder Roberto Milk in a flash of inspiration, during a Portuguese language class at Stanford in 1995. As his graduation day approached, questions began circling around in his head, “What would I do with my life? What path would be most fulfilling? And how would I pay my bills after graduation?”

“In other words, I was totally lost,” he explained.

It was around this time that Milk met Mina Olivera, a captivating Brazilian girl who showed up one night at a party he was deejaying. “From the first moment we met, I knew she was the one,” Milk claims. “Suddenly, learning Portuguese became my top priority.”

The next day, Milk registered for a class taught by Karin van den Dool, a highly respected, elderly Brazilian professor.  Several months into the course, the Professor began speaking about the rich handicraft traditions of Brazil. The problem, she said, was that many artisans could no longer make a living practicing their craft. “Artisans in Brazil have such beautiful pieces,” she said. “But you can’t find them here. And if you do, they’re extremely expensive. That’s why these traditions are dying.”

“As she said this, she turned to look at me directly,” Milk recalled. “I know it sounds crazy, but she locked eyes with mine, and said these words, which are forever burned in my memory. She said – ‘Someone needs to do something about this.’” “These words changed everything. They were the spark that started it all.”

Milk, with the support of Mina Olivera (who later became his wife), her mother Armenia Nercessian, younger brother Andy and best friend Charles, launched Novica in 1999 with co-founders Jose Cervantes and Micheal Burns. By mid-summer 1999, the company started selling the products of over 200 artisan groups in its first four regions.

Soon after, National Geographic came on board as a major investor, giving Novica instant brand recognition and allowing the company to reach a wider audience of art and culture lovers. Along with investments from the IFC and Frog Capital and extensive coverage of their innovative business model by news outlets such as NPR and Los Angeles Times, the company was able to break its first $5 million in November 2003.

Over 10 years later, in 2014, Novica launched its enhanced mission to spread happiness around the world. By June 2014, the company had sent over $50 million to artisans and celebrated their fifteenth anniversary. As for what’s next, Milk asserted that he wants Novica to become the global happiness company.

“Whether it’s a long lasting project for change, or a fleeting moment where the children in a poor neighborhood get to be kids again, our happiness projects will take on many forms, and affect many different lives around the world.” It’s no question that Novica plans on spreading happiness in the years to come."

Image credits: Novica

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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